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J Ethnobiol Ethnomed. 2017 Oct 10;13(1):57. doi: 10.1186/s13002-017-0179-2.

Traditional knowledge hiding in plain sight - twenty-first century ethnobotany of the Chácobo in Beni, Bolivia.

Author information

Herbario Nacionál de Bolivia, Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, Casilla 10077 Correo Central, La Paz, Bolivia.
Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales, Calle Ovidio Suarez 26, Cota Cota, La Paz, Bolivia.
William L. Brown Center, Missouri Botanical Garden, P.O. Box 299, St. Louis, MO, 63166-0299, USA.
Herbario Nacionál de Bolivia, Universidad Mayor de San Andrés, Casilla 10077 Correo Central, La Paz, Bolivia.
Instituto Linguistico Chácobo, Beni, Riberalta, Bolivia.
Comunidad Chácobo de Alto Ivón, Beni, Bolivia.
Comunidad Chácobo de Las Limas, Beni, Bolivia.
Comunidad Chácobo de Firmeza, Beni, Bolivia.
Comunidad Nueva Unión, Beni, Bolivia.



The Chácobo are a Panoan speaking tribe of about 1000 members (300+ adults) in Beni, Bolivia. Originally nomadic, the Chácabo were relocated to their current main location in the 1960s. Researchers have visited the Chácabo since 1911. A first more detailed anthropological report exists from the late 1960s, and ecological-ethnobotanical studies were conducted in the 1980s and 1990s. The presented work represents a complete ethnobotanical inventory of the entire adult Chácobo population, with interviews and plant collection conducted directly by Chácobo counterparts.


Based on previous reports and our preliminary studies, we hypothesized that twenty-first century Chácobo plant use centered on income generation, and that traditional plant use related to household utensils, medicine and traditional crop varieties had almost disappeared. To test this hypothesis, we started the "Chácobo Ethnobotany Project," training 10 indigenous Chácobo participants in ethnobotanical interview and plant collection techniques, in order to more fully document Chácobo knowledge and avoid the influence of foreign interviewers.


Our study found 331 useful plant species in 241genera of 95 plant families, with leaves, roots and bark being the most commonly used plant parts The comprehensive documentation that these methods enabled completely nullified our initial hypothesis of knowledge loss. Traditional crop varieties are still widely grown and traditional knowledge is alive. Moreover, it is being actively recuperated in certain domains by the younger generation. Most Chácobo know, and can name, traditional utensils and tools, although only the older generation has still the skills to manufacture them. While many Chácobo still know the names and uses of medicinal species, the younger generation is however often unsure how to identify them.


In this paper we illustrate the complexity of perspectives on knowledge at different ages, and the persistence of knowledge over almost a century. We found that traditional knowledge was only partially affected by the processes of exposure to a market economy, and that different knowledge domains experienced different trends as a result of these changes. Overall knowledge was widely distributed, and we did not observe a directional knowledge loss. We stress the importance to not directly conclude processes of knowledge loss, cultural erosion or acculturation when comparing the knowledge of different age groups.


Conservation; Indices; Knowledge loss; Traditional knowledge

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